So, where to start? Here are some key factors to consider when choosing a cruise that best fits you:
Elevated dining experiences are top-of-mind for many cruisers these days, so they’re looking for cruise lines that go to great lengths to provide exceptional offerings. Keywords for this group include “fresh, regional cuisine” and “specialty restaurants.” Many cruise lines work with world-renowned chefs to design their restaurants, from concept to cuisine. Princess Cruises offers a Chef’s Table experience that starts with hors d'oeuvres in the galley and ends with a sit-down with the chef. While Carnival has partnered with Food Network’s Guy Fieri for their BBQ-at-sea venue. Plus, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line steadily score high as dining favorites for experience and quality.
Many cruise lines run on a tight ship when it comes to dining. Breakfast is from about 7 am to 10 am. Lunch is served from about noon to 2 pm, and for dinner, you can choose the early or late seating. Nowadays, more cruise lines, especially the larger ones, feature a more casual approach with open seating in the main dining rooms and a choice of specialty restaurants open during certain hours. You can make a reservation or just pop in and hope for an open table or a short wait. (We can thank Norwegian Cruise Line for this free-style dining option as they were first in the industry to offer it.) Even if your cruise line offers early or late seating, you can always opt to explore other dining options on board, such as a specialty restaurant, room service, or the buffet, depending on your mood and cravings that evening.
While every cruise line offers shore excursions, there are a few that go above and beyond in this area of expertise. If you’re looking to get the most from each port that you visit, it’s hard to compete with the likes of Azamara and Viking River Cruises. These smaller ships can go where larger ships can’t and that alone is a huge advantage. Dock right in port and then be immersed in each destination like you’ve only dreamed of with smaller groups, private tours and behind-the-scenes access, intimate meals with locals, and so much more.
If you’re sailing with children, this is an exceptional added benefit. Most kid's clubs are free of charge during normal operating hours and offer safe, fun environments for toddlers to teens (ages 3-17). Some cruise lines offer late hours for a fee on select evenings to allow mom and dad an extended date night. And cruise lines like MSC even offer a nursery where babies and their parents can play together, meet other parents with kids, and even use the MSC Babycare Service to enjoy dinner and a show. Disney Cruise Line, Princess, Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean are also parent favorites. But not all cruise lines offer kid's clubs, be sure to ask if that’s what you need.
If you’re not sailing with kids, and you’d prefer an adult-only experience, there are cruise lines that do not permit anyone under the age of 18 onboard, such as Viking River Cruises. Azamara has a more mature crowd on board, as does Holland America Line and to a lesser degree, Princess Cruises. Even if you’re traveling with kids, we know you just need some alone time and silence. Several cruise ships offer adult-only areas where guests must be at least 18 (if not 21) to enter these restricted areas. And the venue’s location on the ship allows you to get lost in the soothing sounds of the ocean.
There is quite a difference between the experience you’ll have on a smaller ship versus a larger ship. Smaller ships can have just a few hundred passengers while mega ships can have 4,000. Large ships are known for their competitive amenities from water parks to movie theaters and zip lines to go-karts. Smaller ships cater to a more in-depth educational experience and highlight destination enrichment and excellent service. Large ships have dance clubs and Broadway-style shows and smaller ships feature ensembles in the gathering spaces. As far as the staterooms, amenities can be quite similar but there is no comparing the mega suites of the large ships. The space alone allows for extravagance beyond compare. Grand piano, anyone? If you enjoy spending a little time with Lady Luck, be sure to ask if your ship has a casino; not all ships do, especially when sailing the Hawaiian Islands.
How long can you get away for? Most cruise lines offer sailings of 3 to 14 nights, and longer. You can even find cruises of 1 or 2 nights on rare occasions when a ship is repositioning or has a private charter that kinks up its normal schedule. Be aware that the duration of your cruise will likely determine the age of your fellow passengers. Longer cruises attract an older crowd and that makes sense if you think about it. The older generation are free to sail any time, and they have the time and income to enjoy longer sailings. On the other hand, younger cruisers tend to book shorter getaways to warmer climates. So, if you’re looking to party with the college crowd or young families, book a 3 to 5-night cruise, especially from Miami. If you want to avoid younger crowds and young families, choose to sail on longer itineraries of at least a week, and avoid sailing when the kids are out of school such as in the summer and during spring and winter break.
Age and Destination
Prefer to sail with cruisers who are in your same age category? The median age of your fellow cruisers will greatly influence your onboard experience. The Caribbean attracts more cruise passengers than any other destination. But who? According to the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA), cruise passengers to the Caribbean/Bermuda/Bahamas are an average age of 42-44. On the flip side, transatlantic and world cruises attract a much older crowd (ages 62 and up). How about Canada & New England? The median age on board is 61. Families of all ages are attracted to Disney Cruise Line, and Carnival lives up to its reputation as the Fun Ships. Seeking something in the middle? MSC, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian are good middle-of-the-road choices with something for every age.
Your cruise fare includes your accommodations, most entertainment, some beverages like coffee and tea, and dining in the main dining room and buffets. Wi-Fi, alcoholic beverages and sodas are usually extra. Most cruise lines charge gratuities, per person, per day. With some cruises, most everything is included, but these all-inclusive cruises are more the exception than the rule. Depending on your ship, you may have the option of pre-paying your gratuities and even booking and paying for shore excursions and specialty dining before you board. If you have the means, this is a great option. Drink packages are available as well, but they can be pricey. Just know that there are deals to be had, from onboard credit offers to “kids sail free.” Look for deals on our Deal Finder page to see which cruise line is offering the best up-to-the-minute offer.